Monday, August 20, 2018

"Give People Money" and "The War on Normal People"--Two Books on Avoiding Dystopia

          Annie Lowrey’s Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World does not really demonstrate how a universal basic income (UBI) would do any of the things listed in its subtitle. This may well not be Ms. Lowrey’s fault, since my experience is publishers will take liberties with titles. My book, The Simple Life, for example was initially titled The New Frugality Anthology, but the publisher decided frugality was too downscale. One contributor dropped out of the project as a result of the title change. If you’ve ever read an issue of Real Simple, you can see why. “Simple” these days can be quite expensive.
          Anyway, back to Ms. Lowrey’s book. It gives a good definition of UBI: “It is universal, in the sense that every resident of a given community or country receives it. It is basic in that it is just enough to live on and not more. And it is income.”
          Ms. Lowrey goes into the history of the UBI, which I found one of the more interesting parts of the book. The Romans had a form of it; Elizabethan England discussed it as a means to alleviate the poverty caused by the enclosure of the commons and the resultant migration to cities. Bismarck proposed a version for Germany. Richard Nixon, Milton Friedman, and other conservatives considered it in the 1970s. Alas, in this country the idea has so far come to naught. It’s like Will Rogers’ comment on the weather—everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything. Maybe this time will be different.
          The book is good when it stays on track. It describes a family of six living in a studio apartment. All have low paying jobs, and some have two jobs. One person contacted her employer (a fast food chain) about how to make ends meet and was told how to apply for food stamps, housing assistance, etc. Ms. Lowrey visits Maine and encounters a woman who has fallen through the holes in the safety net. Ms. Lowrey says the holes are there on purpose—to punish the poor--and points out that with a UBI the bureaucracy could go away (maybe then learning what it is like to be poor themselves—my observation). She points out that many of the benefits the poor have to jump through hoops to get—housing assistance, for example, are readily available to the middle class—the mortgage deduction, for example.
          Unfortunately, the book goes off the track. Ms. Lowrey begins the book with a visit to the DMZ between North and South Korea, goes to Kenya to see how a nonprofit’s $20 a month contribution to everyone in a village has made a difference, and travels to India to see how screwed up a bureaucracy can get—as if she couldn’t find examples in this country. (I could suggest one where local infrastructure is going to hell while subsidized apartments for the rich and a streetcar that duplicates existing bus routes are priorities.) I couldn’t help but wonder if these foreign adventures were not just padding for a 208-page book that could well have been better if it had been shorter.
          Toward the end of the book Ms. Lowrey examines the cost of the program and recognizes that it will be expensive. She then says it may have to be means tested, which means it would not, by definition, be universal, and those who would pay most for the program would not benefit.

          I began the next book on the UBI, The War on Normal People, by Andrew Yang reluctantly. Robert B. Reich had reviewed both in a single review and said, “The two books cover so much of the same terrain that I’m tempted to wonder whether they were written by the same robot… .” After reading both books, I’m tempted to wonder whether Mr. Reich did the same.
          Mr. Yang’s background is orders of magnitude different from Ms. Lowrey’s, as is his book. Yes, they describe many of the same issues, but Mr. Yang has started many companies and has seen the effects of automation from both sides. His book didn’t need padding.
          If you’re in a hurry and can accept that we have major issues of income disparity and that automation will lead to mass unemployment, you can skip to page 165, which is where Mr. Yang proposes solutions. One of which is, of course, a UBI (paid for by a value-added tax). But there are others, including a “Social Credits” program whereby those unemployed and living in areas where there are few if any jobs can earn these credits by helping their neighbors—sort of a barter program that would enable social engagement as well as trading time for services or items of value. Mr. Yang says there are already such programs in nearly 200 communities. He also proposes what he calls Human Capitalism, or investing in activities that are undervalued but necessary, such as teaching, caretaking, and so on. He also proposes that those who adopt practices that put capital over human interests be held personally accountable. He gives the example of Purdue Pharma, which introduced and falsely promoted OxyContin as “nonaddictive and tamper-proof,” leading to the opioid crisis we have now. The company was fined $635 million in 2007, but it made $35 billion since releasing OxyContin in 1995, so the fine amounted to 2%. I also question what good these fines do. The government gets the money. The public gets screwed. At any rate, in Mr. Yang’s world, the Sackler family (who owns Purdue Pharma) would spend time in jail. He also discusses how the same script played out during and after the financial crisis.
          He has some interesting proposals on health care as well. By the way, have you noticed a resounding silence on the part of Republican candidates about the “progress” made dismantling Obamacare?
          I don’t want to steal all of Mr. Yang’s thunder, but one of the closing chapters, “Building People,” has some great ideas on, well, building people. He recommends keeping parents together, an idea conservatives should cheer, and enabling families to have time to spend together, and time is one thing the new world Mr. Yang sees coming will give us.
          Whether we make people spend this extra time in poverty or guarantee a basic level of comfort is yet to be seen. 
          Before you say UBI will never happen, consider this: Mr. Yang’s circle is comprised of the very wealthy. He and many of his friends see the following scenario:
          “There will be a shrinking number of affluent people in a handful of megacities and those who cut their hair and take care of their children. There will also be enormous numbers of increasingly destitute and displaced people in decaying towns around the country that trucks drive past without stopping. Some of my friends project a violent revolution if this picture comes to pass. History would suggest this is exactly what will happen.”

          Many of his friends are buying secure properties. I suggest it would be cheaper to recognize the probable future and avoid the revolution.

© 2018 Larry Roth

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